Tuesday's surprise intervention by special counsel Robert Mueller was intended to draw a line under the investigation he led for 22 months. Announcing the closure of his office and his retirement from the justice department, Mueller made his first – and what he hopes his final – public comments on the investigation that overshadowed the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency.
In reality, his statement is unlikely to bring closure. Instead it has reignited questions about the findings of the report and whether there is enough evidence to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.
Democrats hoping that Mueller would become their star witness as they continue various congressional inquiries were disappointed.
Mueller tackled this elephant in the room head-on. "There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report," he said. "It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself."
His preference not to testify obviously does not preclude a House committee from issuing a subpoena to force him to appear. Steny Hoyer, the second most senior House Democrat, that he believed Mueller must testify. A little later, however, the normally bellicose House judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler refused to be drawn on the issue, instead simply insisting that Democrats would continue their investigations.
Obstruction of justice
There was some comfort for Democrats, though, from Mueller’s comments. His assertion that “if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that” offered a further reminder that Mueller did not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice charges, despite Trump’s claims that he had been “totally exonerated”.
Indeed, Mueller's 448-page report – when it was finally released in redacted form in April – cites "substantial evidence" of possible obstruction by the president, including that his decision to fire FBI director James Comey was made because Comey would not publicly announce that the president was not under investigation.
Nonetheless, Mueller’s intervention was, on balance, welcomed by the president’s team.
"After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement, telling reporters later: "Just because Democrats don't like the results of the 2016 election or the Mueller report, it doesn't mean they get a do-over."
Trump himself responded on Twitter.
“The case is closed! Thank you,” he tweeted, noting that Mueller’s comments changed “nothing” since the report’s publication. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.”
The surprise intervention by Mueller is unlikely to dissuade Democrats from continuing down their chosen path of investigating the president through various congressional committees.
Speaking at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, House speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated that little had changed following Mueller's comments. "We will continue on our path," she said as she described Congress's continuing efforts to methodically investigate the president, noting that months of committee investigations preceded Richard Nixon's eventual demise during Watergate.
She also criticised the department of justice and attorney general William Barr for misrepresenting the findings of the Mueller report in the first place, when Barr issued a four-page summary of the report initially.
As Democrats in Congress continue their investigations into Trump, the White House is likely to continue to stonewall their efforts to subpoena documents and witnesses to testify before committees.
This is despite the fact that Democrats’ efforts have been buoyed by several court decisions this month which have supported their right to subpoena documents.
Mueller's parting comments may also give Trump something further to worry about. While the president has enthusiastically instructed his attorney general to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation, over what he says was the illegal surveillance of his campaign team during the election campaign, Mueller left no doubt as to his views on what was really going on in the months preceding the election.
“There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American,” he said in his final words before leaving the podium – a rebuff, perhaps, of Trump, who has questioned Russian interference.
Ultimately, Mueller’s appearance on Tuesday underlined that he believes his work is done, and it now falls on others to decide on the next steps. How they proceed will be for Pelosi and House Democrats to decide.